Saturday, 6 March 2010

Mr Cube the sugar lump

This piece by me, about Mr Cube the sugar lump, was in the FT today:

On July 28 1949, a strange cartoon character appeared for the first time on packets of sugar manufactured by Tate & Lyle. Tate & Lyle was Britain’s leading brand of sugar and these packets entered almost every household in the land. The cartoon was of a cube-shaped, sparky-looking man with spindly arms and legs, angrily crossing out the S in “State” to leave “Tate”. He was Mr Cube the sugar lump, and over the next two years he was to become as familiar and popular a character in Britain as Aleksandr the Meerkat is today.

Mr Cube was Tate & Lyle’s aggressive response to the Labour government’s pledge of April 1949 to nationalise the sugar-refining industry. Capable of an endless variety of facial expressions and simple enough to be easily printed, he spouted speech-bubble slogans such as “State control will make a hole in your pocket and my packet”, “Leave it to private enterprise” and “If they juggle with sugar they’ll juggle with your shopping basket”. The message was always the same: under nationalisation there would be less choice, sugar would cost more and the quality would decline.

The Attlee government had already founded the National Health Service and nationalised the coal and steel industries. But Mr Cube’s campaign helped to crystallise a growing popular mood against state controls. In these years of rationing and austerity, sugar had become a symbol of the sweet things in life that, four years after the end of the war, people now thought of as their due. (Sugar was one of the last items to come off the ration, in September 1953.)

One newspaper cartoonist depicted the 1950 general election as a bicycle race between Clement Attlee and Winston Churchill, with Attlee hampered by Mr Cube clinging to his coat tails. Although Labour narrowly won this election, the Tories defeated them in October 1951 and were to remain in power for the next 13 years. The threat of further nationalisation was over and Mr Cube retired, his work done.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘The true counterstroke against the office machine, however, is the world vibrant with colour. The world not as it is, but as it appears in popular hits. A world every last corner of which is cleansed, as though with a vacuum cleaner, of the dust of everyday existence.’ – Siegfried Kracauer


  1. Hi,
    Please come by my blog and pick up your Beautiful Blogger Award.

  2. Thanks so much for the award Herrad.

  3. Ron from the John9 April 2010 at 15:47

    Hey Joe,
    I heard you callously shot down History’s most famous sugar lump, in both the FT and in your subsequent blog. Sugar’s not just any old banal, everyday commodity and as August Cochin suggests “the story of a lump of sugar is a whole lesson in political economy, in politics and also in morality”! Anyway as an older, duller historical colleague and sucrose blogger, (older than Mr Cube in fact), the reason I’m now dancin’ on the QWERTY board, despite having undergone knee surgery two days ago, (wait till you get spindly arms and legs), is to publicly accuse you of gross chronological inexactitude!

    Yea you do at least imply that Mr Cube was an amazingly effective illustrative ally for the Tories aiding their Lazarus like revival after the debacle of 1945, but to then go on and claim that once they were back in power in 1951 “the threat of nationalisation was over and Mr Cube retired, his work done” is patently sham! Worse!

    It was the appearance of Mr Cube on a 1999 company letter announcing the last ever “biennial” Christmas party for the surviving boys and girls from Henry Tate’s mother plant in Liverpool Love Lane that transformed me into a bitter sweet street fightin’ champion of their extraordinary ordinary lives.

    Mr Cube was only officially retired in 2000 when the company website proclaimed that he was stepping down from “public engagements”! The “once favoured child of Tate & Lyle” and Joe Blog can now reflect on some of the lessons in political economy, in politics, and also in morality that followed on the post-war fight against nationalisation by visiting

  4. whenever I leave my house I have several envelopes of these for any emergency.

  5. Was there not a board game featuring Mr Cube played with two dice made to look like sugar cubes? I seem to remember playing the game on the bus from Chelmsford traveling home after school.

  6. Tate & Lyle board game-

    Found on here-

  7. Bit of useless information, Joe Moran was also the name of one of the "H" Pansmen (Specials Sugars)at Tate and Lyle's Liverpool plant when it closed down in 1981.

  8. Mr Cube was given birth by Bert Knowles, the artist in the Drawing Office at Liverpool Love Lane Refinery in the late 1940s, when T&L put a team together to fight the threat of Nationalisation.

  9. I wonder if nationalization had gone ahead, would the refinery be closed now?

    From an ex pansman

  10. I remember a rather ugly, grey lead 12" high model of Mr. Cube that sat next to my grandmother's Aga in her kitchen. He wore a sort of flat cap that lifted to reveal a (small) 'cellar' beneath. I would presume that it was meant to store sugar but my grandmother kept salt in it. Does anyone else remember or know of this little gargoyle? I'd love to find one (or two) for me and my sister.